Thomas Pynchon as Dreamtiger

by Michael Potemra

In reviewing Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, for the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Lethem comes up with an arresting insight:

In Joyce’s formulation, history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. For Pynchon, history is a nightmare within which we must become lucid dreamers.

That’s pretty good. Just last week, I was talking with a friend about Pynchon and trying to explain why I simultaneously love Gravity’s Rainbow and find it very frustrating, and the best I could do was this: “Every page of Gravity’s Rainbow make perfect sense; it’s just that they don’t make sense when read sequentially.” Lethem is on to something when he points to what we might call Pynchon’s “dream-logic”: It happens quite regularly, in dreams, that one set of characters in one plot-line morph unnoticeably into another set of characters with a totally different plot-line; to the dreamer, this makes perfect sense, because he sees identity as fluid in a way a waking person does not. In the waking world, you know that your wife and the guy running the Aphrodite laundromat who has lost your shirts — shirts you veeery sloooowly come to realize you will never, ever get back — are not the same person; not so in dreams.

So Lethem goes some way to explaining why Gravity’s Rainbow is simultaneously on the list of my Ten Favorite Books and the list of my Ten Least-Favorite Books — and, even more specifically, why I enjoy immensely reading it a few pages at a time, while having little interest in reading it again from start to finish. Each dream is lucid, as vivid as (or, often, even more vivid than) real life; a few in a row, morphing one into the other, are a single dark night’s entertainment; but all the dreams in order are (in my view) too exhausting — collectively, they turn into something more like Joyce’s nightmare.

I have read attempts to make sense of Gravity’s Rainbow as a whole as a metaphor for the loss of self — Tyrone Slothrop starts out as an Important Novelistic Character, gets more and more diffuse, and ends up vanishing into little more than a rumor. In these attempts at summary, GR sounds like a noble, Hindu-Buddhist account of the transcendence of the self into a broader oneness (“God,” “Being,” whatever metaphysical placeholder-word you choose), and that’s a notion to which I am greatly sympathetic; which makes it all the more annoying that I don’t like the book as much as I think I should. T. S. Eliot famously said that human kind cannot bear very much reality; perhaps, along similar lines, I can only handle ten or fifteen dreams in a row. (If you have Pynchon’s 887 dreams in a row, you might have a breakthrough, in which you realize that there is a reality deeper than the material-multiplicity illusion-dream of Maya. Or, if you’re like me, you might just get tired.)

NOTE: All of my squawkings above are limited in their application, referring only to Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon has written great stuff that you don’t need to be obsessed with religion to enjoy. I recommend, especially, his 2009 book Inherent Vice — a good-natured surfer-stoner comedy that’s also a heartfelt homage to Raymond Chandler’s classic L.A. private-eye novels.